Downing students fined for socialising with other household members who have tested Covid-positive

An isolating household was fined £25 each for breaking college rules


CN: Mention of COVID-19 and suicide

An isolating household at Downing was fined £25 each by the college for playing FIFA in the presence of a household member who had not tested positive.

On the 8th October 2020, a household at Downing College went into isolation as a result of one member testing positive for coronavirus. During the isolation period, five of the seven members had tested positive, with the other two members showing covid symptoms too.

A few days into the household’s isolation, three members of the household were portered for congregating in one members’ room to play FIFA. Two of the group had tested positive and one had not and so this was deemed to be a breach of Downing’s Covid rules. This follows the college being in talks with Public Health England because of concern over the number of confirmed Covid cases.

The incident was reported to the Dean, and after prolonged discourse between the two parties, the group was sanctioned with a £25 fine each, payable as a charitable donation to Addenbrookes, alongside a £50 suspended fine which would become payable if the trio broke any further Covid rules during the year. This suspended fine would be payable ‘on top of any fine levied for that breach.’ The Dean did note that this fine could be paid ‘in instalments’, if it would present any financial difficulties to the students.

This is not the only case of isolated households at Downing being fined for interactions between those who had and had not tested positive for coronavirus, with at least two other incidents of this sort taking place since the start of term.

The household involved in this particular instance accepted that the Downing isolation rules were technically breached, as the isolation information sent out to the first positive member did specify that they should, where possible, not mix with the other members of their household and wear a mask in any shared areas. However, those fined have pointed to an alleged lack of clarity surrounding the enforcement of this rule, especially in relation to the system of fining and how the amount fined would be determined.

The only legal requirement with regard to isolating is that you must self-isolate if you have had a positive test for Covid-19, or if you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive and has therefore been notified by NHS Test and Trace to self-isolate. It is also an offence to “knowingly provide false information about your close contacts to the NHS Test and Trace, ” and the breach of this rule or a failure to self-isolate under these circumstances can result in a £10,000 government fine.

Those fined at Downing have highlighted that the discouragement of mixing within an isolating household stems from a government guideline, not a law, meaning that it is technically not enforceable, nor can it result in punishment from the government. The gov.uk website states that those with “learning disabilities, autism or serious mental illnesses” only have to follow this guidance to “the best of [their] abilities” whilst keeping themselves and those close to them “safe and well”.

Students at Downing have pointed to this guidance, alongside the recent cases of suicide nationally among students in isolation to argue that strictly enforcing a no-mixing rule for isolating households, who are themselves happy to mix, places the mental health of students at risk.

In discussions between the fined houshold and the Dean, the Dean repeatedly claimed that his role is “to enforce the rules” rather than “debate them” and that the JCR should be contacted if the student body felt as if the rules should be changed.

Students have reached out to JCR welfare officers to express their concern at these rules, stating that they believed them to put the mental health of isolating students at risk. However, these interactions have not led to any changes in Downing’s policies; the recent actions of the college have allegedly come as the result of the recent talks with Public Health England, leaving students looking to change the college rules claiming they feel “powerless”.

The conversation between the college, the JCR, and students who have been fined is currently ongoing and points to a wider feeling within the collegiate university that there has been a general lack of consensus between colleges surrounding covid guidance.

Downing College has been contacted for comment.

Feature image credit: Alice Stephens